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Senior African officials started a five-day United Nations meeting in South Africa today to find ways of improving urban slums in which four-fifths of the dwellers have no access to running water and more than 90 per cent lack access to a sewerage system.

The UN Human Settlements Programme (<"">UN-HABITAT) said the theme of the conference, “Urbanization, Shelter and Development: Towards an Enhanced Framework for Sustainable Cities and Towns in Africa,” reflected its aim to develop a continent-wide framework of action to guide national policies on urban management.

Migration to poor towns from even poorer rural areas has created a process known as “the urbanization of poverty,” with slums housing 72 per cent of urban Africans, or 187 million people, and two out of five slum-dwellers in Africa living in “circumstances deemed to be life-threatening,” UN-HABITAT said.

“Africa’s urbanization is not accompanied by sustained growth precisely because the continent has been perceived as primarily rural and the issues related to the development of sustainable human settlements and the need to provide an integrated approach to the problems of urban poverty and infrastructure, have not been prioritized,” especially within the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (<"">NEPAD) Agenda, the first African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development (<"">AMCHUD) said.

The delegates will discuss such topics as governance and urban development, expanding access to shelter delivery and other basic services for all, as well as financing housing and urban development and the draft of a framework for creating sustainable cities and towns in Africa.

The towns have a major disadvantage in not being able to appropriate funds, UN-HABITAT said. “The region is handicapped by weak local governance capacity. Despite the measures taken to decentralize functions in many countries, a corresponding transfer of resources has not taken place,” it said.

The statistics show that African towns and cities are sharply divided along those who have access to services and those who have not, UN-HABITAT said, with slum dwellers having few services, such as water and sanitation, electricity, or telephones, compared to their wealthier compatriots.

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